Watching the ball rolling in the Bundesliga as football in Germany resumed amid the coronavirus pandemic will no doubt further increase the impatience in South America to get football restarted.
Last week CONMEBOL, the continent's federation, held a video conference meeting to discuss a possible timescale for resuming its club competitions, the Copa Libertadores and the Copa Sudamericana -- respectively, equivalents of the Champions and Europa Leagues.
The official hope is that everything might be ready for a September restart. Behind the scenes, though, some would like to bring that forward to the second half of August. That would entail some serious lobbying from the clubs in Argentina, where as it stands there will be no commercial flights in or out until the start of September. And the big problem here is the northern neighbour. While the coronavirus death toll in Argentina is under 400, in Brazil it is over 15,000 -- the worst in Latin America -- and climbing alarmingly.
The CONMEBOL position is that the competitions can only resume when all 10 of the continent's footballing nations have opened their frontiers. But there are whispers in the corridors of a 'Plan B,' where all the competing teams fly to one country, probably Uruguay, to complete the cups on a quick tournament basis. Here, too, there are logistical problems. And there are the health risks of bringing delegations from Brazil -- plus Peru and Ecuador, where the virus has also proved hard to control -- and spreading COVID-19 around the continent.
But it is hardly surprising that plans are being hatched. It is quite normal for the football authorities to be looking at possible scenarios, and the force of desperation will ensure they look all the harder. South America's clubs will soon be in dire need of income -- and their outlook is not promising.
Over recent years, the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid have been able to grow in financial terms even as the Spanish economy has not performed well. The clubs have developed global revenue streams. They have decoupled themselves from the economy of their nation. The South American clubs have proved unable to do anything similar. The long-term hope is for more penetration of the U.S. market. But as it stands they are largely limited to the context of their home economies -- and here the prospects look very worrying.
The continent was able to shrug off many of the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis without too many alarms. This was thanks to the extraordinary growth of China, a process that was good news indeed for South America. The continent's primary role in the global economy is as a supplier of raw materials. China was buying, South America was selling and booming. The phase has even been referred to in Brazil as "the little miracle." Once China's rate of growth began to slow down, South America caught a cold, which now threatens to become something worse. Demand for its raw materials is taking a hit, and its currencies are taking a dive. The region looks extremely vulnerable.
And if the question "who will buy?" hangs over the South American economies, the same applies to its football industry. The business model of many South American clubs is built around player sales to European clubs. True, a weaker domestic currency means that they will get more bang for their buck in any sales they do make. But will there still be the same demand for the players they produce?
The transatlantic trade route has helped sustain the continent's clubs for years, with South Americans present at all of Europe's top teams. For example, Real Madrid signed Marcelo as a teenager from Fluminense in 2007. Now 32 years old, the Brazil left-back is vice-captain of a squad that includes two of his country's most promising teen talents in Vinicius Jr. (signed from Flamengo in 2018 for around €45 million) and Rodrygo (sold by Santos for €54m a year later), as well as more established players like Casemiro and Eder Militao, whose path to the Bernabeu from Sao Paulo came via a year at Porto.
Over the past few weeks, the football press has been full of speculation that the fee Paris Saint-Germain paid for Neymar will stand as a world record for years to come. Fees will be much lower in a post-pandemic world, runs the argument, and swap deals will be more common. This is not good news for an export-based industry. Already the European clubs have moved toward a practice of buying their South American players younger and younger -- 23 is now considered old -- because, among other reasons, the fee is lower. Any changes in the terms of trade are unlikely to favour the South Americans.
The question of when football will return, then, is a short-term issue. The wider, long-term question is the quest for a sustainable business model. Some four years ago there were attempts behind the scenes to organise a genuine Pan-American competition, with teams from South America competing with clubs from Major League Soccer in the U.S. and Mexico's Liga MX. Those efforts foundered on organisational grounds -- with travel time a particular headache. But in a post-pandemic world, it would not be a surprise if there were to be another attempt at unifying the Americas in a club tournament.